UK 'ministry of propaganda' will take fight to al-Qa'ida

John Reid is to set out a 'core script of British values' as part of an all-out government assault on the hardline tricks that lure the UK's young Muslims into terrorism
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It seems to be a simple board game that purports to be the Islamic equivalent of Monopoly. But one card in the game - sold as a family activity - invites players to "kill Western infidels".

And the Soldiers of Allah could be just another rap outfit - were it not for the band's extreme lyrics that routinely abuse non-Muslims as "kufirs".

When it comes to understanding how young Muslims are sent down the path that ends in murderous suicide, the experts have learned to look beyond the seemingly innocent.

The public admission last week by Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, director general of the security service, of the scale of the homegrown terrorist threat, was timed to coincide with the conviction of Dhiren Barot.

The jailing for 40 years of the British al-Qa'ida planner working on a dirty bomb attack on London was deemed the right moment to bring into the open some deeply uncomfortable truths.

"Young teenagers are being groomed to be suicide bombers," said Dame Eliza, who says MI5's caseload has increased by 80 per cent since January.

The intelligence community talks of the process by which ordinary people become suicide bombers in terms of four phases. First there is passive sympathy, next a radicalisation (some prefer the term indoctrination), then comes training and finally active terrorism.

Disturbing to everybody with access to the intelligence is not only the numbers starting out on the path to terrorism but the fact that their journeys are being completed much faster.

At least two 16-year-olds are under investigation for taking part in terrorist plots in this country. One youth was arrested as part of Operation Overt that foiled an alleged plot to blow up commercial aircraft over the Atlantic. Another teenager was stopped in an airport in the north of England while taking part in a suspected terrorist operation.

The pattern is repeated in other Western countries: Canadian police arrested two young teenagers in an operation in Ottawa this summer. Sources say they were part of a sophisticated plot to bomb prominent buildings in the city.

Terrorists may be getting younger, but the intelligence services can point to neither a uniform pattern by which the process occurs nor a particular type that is susceptible. Some are under-achievers from broken families who are groomed by "spotters". Others, like Mohammed Siddique Khan, the 7/7 ringleader, are respected, successful mentors.

There is an admission too, that disrupting the process will not be easy. "What we really need to do is offer these kids some sort of 'Get out jail free' card. At the moment once they are a bit down that path they face either arrest or suicide," said one Whitehall official.

Chief constables are considering bringing in social workers and teachers to target young people at risk of turning to terror, similar to teams already used to target anti-social youths.

This scheme is to run alongside attempts to arrest and disrupt those planning terrorist atrocities. There are also plans to instruct teachers in how to counter possibly radical views held by pupils, such as the belief in an Islamic empire that dominates the world.

Last year there were more than 100 arrests, and the police take the view that most have been carried out "without much echo".

But Rob Beckley, from the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), acknowledges it only takes "a Forest Gate" to undo bridge-building with the Muslim communities.

"We don't want to end up like East Germany's Stasi, and there is a real risk of that," said Mr Beckley, assistant chief constable with Hertfordshire Police and Acpo's communities and counter-terrorism lead.

"Just because you end up radicalised that doesn't make you a criminal. There is a real danger that the State doesn't over-react. Most communities are not problematic and most Muslims wouldn't know a terrorist if they slapped them around the face. A template for terrorism doesn't exist. The tipping point is so hard to predict."

He said teachers must do more to openly confront extreme views in the playground, and added: "There is grooming going on and it is like paedophile grooming. People can be targeted while they are out playing football or by someone in the community they have known from childhood."

The official line from Scotland Yard's counter-terror command is that eradicating extremism is the number one priority. But privately, senior officers say that this strategy is doomed to failure if used alone.

One source told this paper that the Iraq war had increased anger among young people, and that arresting those "contaminated" by extremist views and locking them up would only make others feel justified in replacing them. "Why have we got so many people who are radicalised, where they want to take innocent lives? There must be policy failures and this stuff has also been happening under the radar," the source said.

"There is general radicalisation and contamination and that is a big problem. Officially, the enforcement agenda is so strong but eradication on its own won't work. It has to be a shared responsibility."

At a national level, Tony Blair and John Reid have become convinced of the need for a full-frontal propaganda attack on al-Qa'ida with an assault by the government as a whole in the New Year. Every Whitehall department is being told to review its communications strategy to counter extremist propaganda, and a new research and analysis unit in the Cabinet Office is to monitor the threat.

The Home Secretary is preparing a "core script of British values". A current draft defines them as "respect for the law"; "freedom of speech"; "equality of opportunity"; and "taking responsibility for others".

But some of those fighting against indoctrination worry that the approach could backfire. Mr Beckley says lessons in Britishness are "laudable" but could be seen as "patronising" by the Muslim community. "I can understand why [ministers] would want to replicate the system in the US. But Muslims say they already have these values."

Mr Reid and Mr Blair would reply that that is the point. They want to define and promote the values that this country's citizens share to better isolate those that divide. It is a difficult - but essential - task.